Reaching Beyond the Mennonite Comfort Zone: Exploring from the Inside Out

Sally Schreiner Youngquist

The Conrad Grebel Review 23, no. 2 (Spring 2005)

Will Schirmer, Reaching Beyond the Mennonite Comfort Zone: Exploring from the Inside Out. Cascadia Publishing House, 2003.

Convinced Anabaptist Will Schirmer takes the Mennonite family lovingly to task for habits and attitudes of clannishness preventing congregations from successfully reaching and incorporating new people. After being part of the Mennonite church in southeastern Pennsylvania for more than twenty years, he shares many observations of “in-group” thinking and behavior that hold newcomers at arm’s length, under such chapter headings as “What Non- Mennonites Don’t Want to Hear.” Some of these grievances are particular to Mennonites (attitudes like “Mennonites are the only Christians,” or “The world is bad and you are worldly”), while some can be found in any close-knit group (behaviors like “private inside jokes and conversations”).

The last three chapters focus on means to reach beyond the familiar, using stories of Mennonite churches taking deliberate steps to effectively engage the mission fields around them. Written for a lay audience, the book offers discussion questions at the end of each chapter for group study and application of “where the shoe fits.”

Schirmer’s chapter on “Nonconfrontation: A Way of Life or a Way Out?” is the most thoughtful and provocative of his anecdotal observations. He believes our theology of nonresistance has often promoted a culture of avoidance in dealing with inter-personal and congregational conflict, fostering patterns of denial, acknowledgement, and regret rather than healthy problem solving. He argues that Jesus left us with many healthy examples of confrontation and non-confrontation, and he appeals for a more active use of Jesus’ process for confronting sinners (Matthew 18:15-17), emphasizing the importance of communication at every stage to win over sinners and confront our own fears and weaknesses.

The concluding chapters on “Reaching out Beyond the Familiar,” “Getting to Know People and Meeting Their Needs,” and “Getting Churches on Track with the Great Commission” are both inspiring and practical for any congregation seeking to grow beyond the status quo. The author critiques our culture’s emphasis on comfort (the “easy chair” mentality) that has crept into our churches, erecting barriers to change such as familiarity, legalism, inward focus, selfpreservation, and resting on laurels. He describes churches pursuing a course of change in order to focus beyond themselves; they have pioneered shifts in leadership, worship, attitude, and congregational structure that can serve as models for others. The dynamics Schirmer describes could apply to many congregational settings outside the Mennonite fold, but they are relevant to community-minded Mennonites grappling with the dynamics of rapid cultural change.

Schirmer helpfully identifies the Mennonite fear of compromising the Gospel as key to resisting change in the church. He argues for changing ourselves and how we present the Gospel, but not for changing the content of our good news. He cites congregations that have successfully taught the peace position to newcomers without rejecting or judging them for coming in with different perspectives, and he urges gaining an understanding of the shifting worldviews – traditional, modern, and postmodern – found within our congregations and the society around us. He proposes Mennonites overcome their discomfort with traditional methods of evangelism by concentrating on getting to know people and meeting their needs – something that Mennonites, with their history of service, do quite naturally. In his final chapter, Schirmer affirms the missional focus of Mennonite Church USA and Canada, and describes processes of healing, vision development, and procurement of outside resources which can help congregations become welcoming and inclusive of seekers.

Sally Schreiner Youngquist, pastor, Living Water Community Church (a Mennonite congregation), Chicago, IL